Movies I Want Everyone to See: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

[Originally Published on Fogs Movie Reviews Fall of 2013] [Re-Published now in conjunction with the 2018 TCM Film Festival]

I recently spent the weekend with some friends and a guy I know well, and have been friends with for more than thirty five years, had the audacity to suggest that the remake of this film was more entertaining than the original. I instantly dropped my jaw, exclaimed loudly that he had to be kidding and then proceeded to disagree in a condescending manner. I have to apologize for the tone, it was not called for and I would not want my friend to be angry at me because I mocked his preference for the 2009 version. I do want him to know and understand that although I liked the Denzel/Travolta film, it can’t really hold a candle to the original and that vigorous defense of the 1974 classic  begins now as I once more recommend a movie that I want everyone to see.

The nineteen seventies were the last golden age of movie making. There have been plenty of great movies since then, and there have even been periods of time when a film making movement has taken center stage. Yet pound for pound the period of time when the studios were still controlled by film makers and not corporate conglomerates, remains the longest sustained period of film making excellence since the 30s. The mavericks that ran the studios lead by the seat of their pants, and their taste in films. When they succeeded, like Robert Evans did at Paramount, the atmosphere was invigorating. After “Heaven’s Gate” and the fall of United Artists, the movie business changed. Not always in negative ways but it was very different. “The Taking of Pelham 123” is one of those films that represent a gritty view of the world, with cynicism that reflected the time and place and was not simply a joke or a stylistic flourish. It’s not the kind of film that would have appealed to a modern studio as much. Maybe the indie world would be able to put something like this on the screen these days but it would not have had the cache of this version. The remake exists because there is already a story, and a success that the marketers can shoehorn into their philosophy. The remake is a casting gimmick, it worked but only because the groundwork had been laid out by the original.

MatthauThis is a crime film where the crime involves holding hostages for ransom. The conceit is that the location of the kidnapping is a moving target underground. The set up of the movie familiarizes us with a variety of characters, most of whom are working stiffs in the NY Transit System. Walter Matthau, who made his daily bread playing cynical types, is the worn down head of the transit police in charge of one section of the subway system. Lt. Garber, mouths off at his co-workers, dutifully provides a tour to visiting transit dignitaries and generally growls his way through another work day. The re-make casts Denzel as as a dispatcher rather than a cop. OK that might work, except it the remake then  gives him a back story and a plot line that have nothing to do with the main event. The goal is to layer the character and make the plot deeper. In my view it comes off as uncertainty as to how to make the plot as tense as possible. They resort to tricks to build empathy for Garber.  Matthau’s cop version is just doing his job. He is good at it and he struggles with the crisis he is faced with but our rooting interest is in the events not the man. Denzel is given multiple crisis to deal with and his willingness to do the job is undermined by the suspicion around him because of a separate story that is not really the focus of the film.

As a great illustration of the urban grittiness found in the original, take a listen to this terrific main theme that muscles the story onto the screen and tells you this is a film about tough men and dangerous situations, and manages to do so without resorting to theatrics.

I don’t remember the score from the remake, but I do remember the over the top “bad guy” played by John Travolta. Dark glasses, close cropped hair, Fu Manchu mustache and tattoos galore are all trademarks of movie bad guys in the last twenty years. All the gang in the original had fake mustaches but they wore them as a cover not as an attempt to intimidate. Even though there is not any back story or character costuming, the four hijackers in the 1974 film all had distinct personalities and they were easy to remember by their colorful sobriquets.  I am pretty sure this is where Tarantino cribbed the idea for naming his characters in “Reservoir Dogs”.

Robert-Shaw-as-Mr-Blue-600x255The ultimate measure of any story like this is the villain, and while Travolta was scary and played the part as was written, his character is not as interesting or unnerving as Robert Shaw’s Mr. Blue. While we ultimately hear a little bit more about his background, the truth is none of it matters because we know from the beginning that he is a ruthless professional. The look in his eye and the demeanor he conveys is all we need to know he is an alpha. Shaw never screams or shouts. Mr. Blue’s cool voice and nearly expressionless face tells every passenger on that train that he is not a man to be f***ed with. The next year after this, Shaw did “Jaws” which was a performance that draws attention to the characters idiosyncrasies.  Except for his intolerance of the psycho Mr. Grey, we see little of his motivation or internal processes. Shaw underplays every scene and the dialogue with Matthau on the radio is deadly earnest. He never compromises. The one time his timetable is adjusted has nothing to do with negotiating but everything to do with the situation, he still is in charge.

The way the hijackers maintain their control of the situation is by following Mr. Blue’s lead. He guns down a hostage in cold blood and he doesn’t accept the improvisation of his reckless ex mafia colleague. When he speaks to the passengers there is no mock sympathy or reassurance. He simply speaks directly and he acts as he has promised to.

Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue, menacing Matthew Broderick's Dad.

Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue, menacing Matthew Broderick’s Dad.

The supporting players are a combination of believable types and loathsome stereotypes. Most of the employees of the N.Y. Transit system come off as they are supposed to, harried professionals who view these events from the point of view of a bureaucrat rather than an average citizen. Ben Stiller’s Dad shows up, not cracking wise so much as he is humorously supporting Garber as his partner in the Transit police. Veteran TV character actor Dick O’Neil plays the intolerant train schedule manager who can’t be bothered to worry about dead customers when the trains are getting off schedule. He asks at one point what the customers want for their  lousy 35 cents, to live forever? This is the kind of casual negativity that pushes Garber into one of his few outward displays of frustration.  We get a chance to see the craven actions of political figures as they calculate the costs of paying a ransom. A calculation that has more to do with the next election than saving the lives of the hostages.  We never get to know much about the captives, they are stereotypes; old man, panicked mother, hooker etc. This is not a story of the lives of the victims of this crime or the perpetrators or the cops. The story focuses on the events of the crime.

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The New York subway system seems familiar because we’ve seen it in a hundred movies. Overcrowded, not quite clean, sometimes antiquated and claustrophobic.   The film manages to convey all of that without dwelling on any of it. The darkness surrounding the train car becomes the background for some good tense scenes. One cop even jokes that because of his color he wants everyone to be aware that he is between the SWAT team and the criminals. There is a very morbid sense that everyone in those tunnels is just another rat in a hole and they all have to fend for themselves. While there are nihilistic films out there today, it is hard to see a major studio building a film around that sort of attitude. The characters would have to be sympathetic and the bureaucracy would be the focus of anger rather than the kidnappers. The cops at the surface have many of the same attitudes that we might see fifteen years later in “Die Hard”.  They are ready to shoot first and ask questions later. They are not always competent, witness the car crash that delays delivery of the money, but they don’t play most of this for laughs. The police in authority are not figures to be mocked like Dwayne Robinson, they are also working professionals that are worn from the job but shrug their shoulders and do it anyway. This whole film is very much a blue collar thriller. The bad guys are a team of desperate men not an army of tactically trained experts. The Transit employees are real people in a tough thankless job that have become jaded. The cops are overwhelmed and smart but not brilliant. The only pure comic personae is the Mayor with the flu.

The remake is filled with visual twists and plot developments to astound us. This movie is not filled with fireworks but it manages to hold our attention and be entertaining. The plot scenario might sound farfetched but set in the days of D.B. Cooper and hijacking of planes to Cuba it feels real. The city, the subway the  passengers, the crooks and the cops all come across as real people. This is not a spy adventure or an action film with a hero who overcomes incredible odds. It is an urban thriller that  makes it’s story feel like it could happen and characters that might really exist. The final clue that nails the hijacker that gets away is even more fun now a days when we see so many stories about stupid criminals. Even though the denouncement is played for a laugh, it also feels authentic.

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I’m sure most of the readers of this site have probably watched this film a time or two. Fogs gave me a term in a on-line post that I now use regularly. This is a “Black Hole” film. It’s gravitational pull for me is overwhelming, and every time I encounter it I lose another 104 minutes of my life but I gain a 104 minutes of time with story tellers who know what the hell they were doing.

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

Less Celebrated Lines from Jaws

We just finished our first of two screenings for Father’s Day.

The time while people filed in was filled with a few trivia cards. Come on, you gotta find something a little harder than this.

Another Jaws List for you.

 

One of the myriad of things that Jaws is noted for are the quotes that have become part of the culture. The AFI has the most memorable quote from the film at number 35 on their list of 100 Greatest Quotes 

That’s a little low in my view but still respectable.  Fans of the movie will have a dozen other quotes that they will harpoon you with if given a chance. 


Bureaucrats everywhere will be comforted by the rationalization of the mayor of Amity when he warns the Chief about being too proactive based on the first attack.

  

Mayor Vaughn: Martin, it’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, “Huh? What?” You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July. 

It’s awful hard not to smile with righteous glee when the truth gets flung back in the face of the sheepish police chief and the cow-towing medical examiner by young Mr. Hooper on examining the body of the first victim.

Hooper: Well, this is not a boat accident!

Of course  the misanthropic shark hunter Quint has no shortage of million dollar lines.

At the town meeting, after he gets a introduction worthy of Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, he sums up his offer to all the locals succinctly.

 

Quint: $10,000 for me by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.

As Quint engages in the male ritual of one upmanship with the Chief by offering a toast with his own home made moonshine, he shows himself to be as crude as the Chief fears he might be.

Quint: Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women

Of course Quint also gets the whole monologue about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. That five minutes has some of the greatest visualizations and quotes in it and star Robert Shaw delivered it perfectly.

Chief Brody has no shortage of good lines. One quote inspired Director Bryan Singer to name his production company.

Brody: That’s some bad hat, Harry. 

Perhaps the greatest ad-libbed line ever created, comes from actor Roy Scheider, when he first gets a look at their nemesis. He backs of in fear and awe and tells Quint everything he should know about what is going to happen.

 Brody: You’re gonna need a bigger boat.  

 

This post however, is a salute to some of the lesser lines in the film. They often convey a character or render a bit of humor in the first half of the movie. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, who appears in the film as the local newsman Meadows, was a TV writer who added punch to most of the script which had a spine from novelist Peter Benchley. He is almost certainly responsible for the quotes that follow, many of which are spoken in the background of the scene.

The Chief’s Secretary is in only one scene but she quickly conveys to the audience how mundane the work of the police department in Amity should be. Her big piece of news is the complaint from some of the local businessmen.

“It seems that the nine year olds from the school have been karate-ing the picket fences.”–Polly

The mayor says it in more than one spot, Amity is a summer town, it depends on summer dollars.  When the Chief goes to the hardware store to get the materials for printing “Beaches Closed” signs, we hear in the background the local merchant complaining to the jobber who has failed to bring the requested summer product. You can tell from his language that he’s an “Islander”.

“This stuff isn’t going to help me in August, the summer ginks come down here in June.”–Store Owner

The Chief’s Deputy conveys his sense of powerlessness, lack of status and personal insecurities when the Chief instructs him to let Polly do the printing on the signs. He demurs with an understated question.

“What’s the matter with my printing?”–Hendricks

As the town selectmen announce support for closing the beaches, the Mayor tries to buy some calm with his pronouncement that the closure will only last 24 hours. The Chief says, “I never agreed to that”, but from the crowd comes the fearful response.

“Twenty four hours is like three weeks.”–Unidentified voice at the Council Meeting

The story is full of colorful characters who don’t really get any development except their one or two scenes. When their attempt to catch the shark from a jetty on the opposite side of the island goes bad, you can hear the understatement of the year from the first guy out of the water:

“Charlie take my word for it, don’t look back”.–Denherder

Fisherman Ben Gardner has disdain for the outsiders showing up to collect the bounty put up by Mrs. Kitner on the shark. As he takes his charter out, he mutters a curse under his breath that sounds like it would come from the mouth of a local fisherman.

“Wait till we get them silly bastards down in that rockpile they’ll be some fun, they’ll wish their fathers had never met their mothers.”–Ben Gardner

Matt Hooper attempts to be helpful by identifying the shark that is caught by one of the cast of idiots that went out on an overloaded launch. The quote itself is not so special, but the way in which it was delivered results in a laugh that is still hard to explain.

“A What?”–Belligerent Fisherman Pratt

Here is one that is so understated that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it before. Amanda pointed it out to me when we were watching the film last Sunday. After Hooper offers his help in identifying the shark, he discovers that the know it all does not always endear himself to others. He made the mistake of suggesting that the shark might not be the one who killed the little boy. The bounty hunters take umbrage and offer to stick his head in the mouth of the shark to prove their point

 

“What I’m saying is it may not be the shark, just a slight difference in semantics that I don’t want to get beaten up for.”–Hooper

Obviously the lion’s share of great lines went to the three stars. When the characters interact they reveal more about themselves to each other and us. As they are searching the waters where the shark has been feeding at night, Hooper chides the chief about being afraid of the water but living on an island. The Chief gives the only rationalization that makes sense of his situation:

“It’s only an island if you look at it from the water”.–Brody

The Mayor played by Murray Hamilton, is often seen as a villain in the story. In truth, he represents a part of the fear that the shark presents to the whole community. His way of coping is to cling to the trappings of his office and the illusion that some degree of control is still in his grasp. He’s not as worried about the shark as he is about nascent Banksyies moving into the neighborhood.

 

“That is a deliberate mutilation of a public service message.” –Mayor Vaughn

It is always funny to me when we show how predictable we are as humans. One of the prime examples of our craven natures is our desire to avoid responsibility for our actions. The world is full of excuse makers and apologists. Kids are much more honest about how this is true. When caught, one of the two kids with the cardboard fin is quick to sell out his buddy in order to weasel out of paying a penalty.

“He made me do it, he talked me into it.”– Whiny Prankster

OK, those are my choices. If you have some that you like and I neglected to mention, feel free to add them in your comments, then we will either take it under consideration or hang you up by your Buster Browns.

Oscar Blogathon–Neglected Supporting Actor Performances of 1975

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This  is my entry into the 31 days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. This week focuses on Oscar Snubs. For forty years I have been stewing on this injustice and I am thankful to have an opportunity to vent. Please be sure to check out the other posts on this project at the sites listed above. I have also included links to relevant posts of my own in this entry.

I have always maintained that 1975 was one of the great years in American movie history. Along with 1939 and 1982, this year from the middle of the last golden age of cinema had a plethora of worthy films. I would never denigrate “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, or “Dog Day Afternoon”. “Barry Lyndon” is lovely but I despise “Nashville”. The picture that deserved to win the big award is featured on the masthead of this blog so it is no secret that I harbor an admiration for Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws“. It was an oversight to neglect that movie but it was understandable given the fine work done by all in the eventual winner.

What I do find unforgivable however is the negligence of the Academy’s Actor’s branch to include two performances from that year in the supporting actor category. Not only were the two performances I want to highlight for you ignored, they were far more deserving than any of the roles that did receive nominations. Just to refresh your memory, in case you don’t carry that sort of trivia around in your head for just such a discussion, the nominees in the Best Supporting Actor category were, Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Burgess Meredith as Harry Greener in “Day of the Locust”, Chris Sarandon as Leon in “Dog Day Afternoon” and Jack Warden as Lester Karpf in “Shampoo”. The eventual winner was sentimental favorite, comedian, vaudevillian, and TV personality George Burns, as Al Lewis in “the Sunshine Boys”. All of these men did fine work, and no one should be embarrassed to have been included, but the five selected did not include career defining work from two other well known and worthy actors.

imagesLet me start with the performance that is least likely to be remembered by today’s movie goers. Brian Keith was maybe best known as a Television actor. He starred in two separate successful series, one in the 1960s, “Family Affair” where he played Uncle Bill, the bachelor guardian to his brother’s orphaned children. In the 80’s he costarred in Hardcastle and  McCormick, he had two or three other series that did not last more than a season or two as well. He made an appearance in many films since he started in the business but worked most consistently in TV. In 1975 he showed up and off in the John Milius written and directed “The Wind and the Lion“.

Keith played President Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most accomplished man we ever had in the job of President of the U.S.. It is also a role that is parodied in films, depicting Roosevelt as a reckless headstrong cowboy, whose bellicose manner was defined as the “Big Stick” policy. What may not be said as frequently is the first part of the policy, “speak Softly”. Keith manages to to convey this dual nature of Roosevelt in this adventure film inspired by a real historic incident.chi-president-election-movies-20121105-004

In the story, Sean Connery is a Berber brigand who has taken an American woman hostage for political purposes in Morocco. As he is preparing to run for the office he inherited, Roosevelt seizes upon the event as a potential campaign issue. Keith never raises his voice or shouts. His whole performance is level but with a lot of vocal nuance. Keith had a naturally gruff voice that fits with our image of the Rough Rider Teddy. He uses tone and pacing to emphasize some deep philosophical ideas well at the same time laughing at himself for taking things so seriously.

Keith has a bit of an advantage in his performance by playing opposite Director/Actor John Huston who plays Secretary of State John Hay. Huston had another one of those great voices and the two of them crossing swords in the White House or out on the shooting range made for some wonderful scenes in the movie that contrasted nicely with the action adventure scenes set in Northern Africa. Keith gets some nice moments of power conveying the certainty of his foreign policy. Roosevelt was know as a man of action and that’s exactly how he is represented here. Not by having him run around in circles crying Bully every five minutes but by speaking forcefully and decisively. His actions are not shown to be short sighted or politically motivated but rather, that he understood the political advantage his manner and policies provided him.

The closest the film comes to mocking Roosevelt is in a scene where he tries to Picture 3describe to a man from the Smithsonian, how he wants the grizzly bear he shot to be displayed. He poses with hands up and growls, and encouraged by his daughter, repeats the pose and growl on a table. Part of it is political theater, but mostly it comes across as the enthusiasm of a man who knows what he wants. Keith’s jovial nature in the scene contrasts effectively with an earlier scene in the wilderness with an entourage in tow as he speaks about the taking of the bear with a magnificent vista behind him. He is proud of the accomplishment but also sad. He expresses an admiration for the grizzly that seems heart felt and warm, again mostly because of the vocal variety he uses. He smiles with his voice and speaks wistfully about America’s place in the world.

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Connery and Keith never shared any scenes in this film. Their characters are an ocean apart but very similar in nature. In the closing of the movie is the closest we come to an interaction as Roosevelt, suffering from blindness in one eye, sits at the foot of his bear and reads a note from the Rasuli, describing their places in the world. The two actors would share the screen a few years later in the execrable “Meteor” but nothing there matches the power of Connery’s voice over narration as Keith sits in silence and acts with just his shoulders and hands in the scene.

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While Brian Keith being ignored is a disappointment since he never had another part equal to that role, the second actor ignored is a crime beyond my comprehension. If you were to ask almost anybody in the movie business, what are the most culturally influential films of the 1970s, there are really two main answers. “Star Wars” is a juggernaut that turned the geek audience into the main driving force of popular culture today. All the comic book movies that dominate the screen these days are descended from that George Lucas film in 1977. Yet it was two years earlier that the ground began to shift, the blockbuster mentality began to rule, and the talent of Steven Spielberg was recognized by the world. The failure to nominate Steven Spielberg for the best film he ever made is probably a result of jealousy by other Academy members and hubris by Spielberg himself. The failure of the actors branch to mention Robert Shaw is inexplicable.

“Jaws” is a film that everyone who watches movies knows about, and anyone who loves  movies cherishes. The story behind the making of the film has been told before. So has the story of the impact of the film. This is not the first time I have complained about the neglect of Robert Shaw either. As a vocal advocate of this movie I will freely admit that this is not an unbiased opinion. I consider it a duty to remind the world on a regular basis of the greatness of this film, and this post gives me the opportunity to do so through the means of promoting a great screen performance.

I only hope that this fan made poster is right and we get an anniversary release this coming summer.

I only hope that this fan made poster is right and we get an anniversary release this coming summer.

I have done maybe a dozen posts over the years on some aspect of this film. It is a film I know I can say I have literally seen at least a hundred times because every year since it has been available to rent or or buy on VHS, watch on cable or on laser disc or DVD, or Blu ray, I have done so approximately four times a year. It is downloaded on my Kindle right now, waiting for an opportunity during a long wait in line or a medical appointment that is taking too long to get to. One of the reasons that it is so repeatable is the performance of the aforementioned Mr. Shaw. It is a part that is fascinating every time I watch it and there is always something new and amazing to discover.

To begin with, 3450810_stdthe character of “Quint”, although introduced in the first act of the film, doesn’t reappear in the story until halfway though the movie. That first introduction is incredibly memorable, with Shaw scraping the chalkboard and chewing his food during the town council meeting. He condescends to everyone in attendance and then walks out of the scene. The force of his personality lingers over the meeting and the rest of the film. We know this smug, superior fisherman in the ancient sweater jacket and muttonchops is going to return and be a pivotal player in the story.

While he does pop up in one brief moment, chuckling to himself over the amateurs who think they can bring in the shark, his return to the story takes place on his ground. The business he runs is filled with stewing cauldrons of shark cartilage and homemade liquor.  His self assurance is spat out at the way he mocks Richard Dreyfuss’s characters attempt to provide some credentials by mentioning the America’s Cup. Shaw’s English background helped make the flinty New England  accent more realistic. His devil may care costuming impresses us with his working class manner of thinking. He is a man who knows his place in the world and is completely confident in it up to the end. Look at the body language as he surveys the equipment that Hooper is bringing aboard, he might just as well have spit. screenshot-med-31

The on set legend is that Shaw disliked Dreyfuss and that dislike carried over to his performance. Shaw was also an alcoholic who needed just one drink to turn mean. It sounds like he was the perfect fit for the role. I recently saw “The Godfather” and Sterling Hayden who played Captain McClusky in that film was originally supposed to take the role of Quint, but tax complications kept him out and fortuitously put Shaw in. I can imagine Hayden fitting the part with his haggard look and somewhat raspy voice, but the character would have played very differently. I think he would have come off as an old man set in his ways and believing in them. Shaw provides some of that, but he also manages to suggest that he is just a little off hinged.

For example, the Limerick he recites as Mrs. Brody is dropping off her city slicker husband to go on the shark hunt, sounds so much more snarky and odd coming from a younger man and one who is taking such glee in sharing it out of nowhere. Quint projects it across the sounds of the Orca being loaded and he smiles knowingly as he gets to the somewhat dirty payoff. Shaw almost puts a chuckle in his voice but stops just short of being cloying. Shaw plays Quint as if he is tickled at the chance to show up all these land lubbers. Of course he is also the master of his own boat and while Brody does complain back at one point, Shaw makes it clear in near silhouette and with a frozen posture, that he is having none of it.

quint_indianapolis_speech_jaws_robert_shawCarl Gottlieb, the credited screenwriter along with book author Peter Benchley, largely gives credit to Shaw for the most famous monologue since Shakespeare. The story he shares is a ghost story about the demons who have haunted him and turned him into the character he is. The fact that Shaw sells the story makes it all the more jaw dropping. This one scene would have won the award for any number of actors. The five minutes in this scene trump the whole five minute performance of Beatrice Straight in “Network”. Of course the role was not limited to that one scene and just about everywhere else, he burns up the screen with his stare, his grin or his hat. The by-play with Roy Scheider as Chief Brody, exists in a friendly but condescending universe.

The three leads are all well cast and well played, but it is the prickly off-kilter Quint who gets the best scene and makes the most memorable impression. Robert Shaw played a series of tough guy roles over the years. Some of them steely like Red Grant in “From Russia With Love“, or Doyle Lonnegan in “The Sting“. Others were playful and heroic like the pirate in “Swashbuckler“. “Quint encapsulates both spirits and puts a haunting backstory in the mouth of a master actor. It’s nice that George Burns got an Oscar and a new career from his role in “The Sunshine Boys”, but history shows that the Academy can make a mistake in the interests of sentimentality. It is my opinion that they did so in 1975.